What We are Learning About Oral History and the Vietnam War
Creating and recording oral history can be an incredibly daunting task, especially for undergraduate students. However, the students in Intro to Oral History: Vietnam War Stories course accepted the challenge and thus far, it has paid off. We started the class by studying the Vietnam War and its global impact. We read numerous articles and books about the war itself including a number of veteran’s accounts of the war. From a student’s point of view, the format of the class was very interesting and beneficial. Most of us had never truly studied the Vietnam War but we all were eager to learn about it. However, learning about the war also felt extremely rushed, and incomplete. Dr. Thomas acknowledged that the study of the war was rushed due to the class schedule. As students however, we still did not feel we learned enough about the war. This is an area that can be improved and perhaps what would be most beneficial for the future is to make this class a two-semester sequence divided between the Vietnam War and the study of Oral History. Such a format would allow students ample time for an in-depth study of the war before interviewing Vietnam veterans.
Aside from this suggestion, I have truly enjoyed the semester. While the class has experienced a lot of trial and error, it has also had a lot of success. Most notably, students benefitted from having Dr. Martha Norkunas, Professor of Oral and Public History at Middle Tennessee State University and a veteran oral historian, work with our class for a number of sessions. Dr. Norkunas’ visit was a reality check for the class and a tremendous learning experience. Even as we prepared for our interviews by watching examples in class and reading about them in the textbooks, we did not fully understand the enormous task in front of us until Dr. Norkunas shared her wisdom. The most powerful part of her visit was the opportunity see an oral history interview in action. Dr. Norkunas conducted one in front of the class with a local Iraq War veteran. The ability to witness and to feel the raw emotion in the room of the veteran as he told his story publicly for the first time was awesome. Observing the interview enabled us to put ourselves in the veteran’s shoes and connect with him during an incredibly vulnerable time. In addition to Dr. Norkunas a number of other professionals offered their insight and advice to better prepare us. One of my personal favorite things we have done is incorporate mini-interviews between our classmates that allowed us time to practice while also forming stronger bonds with each other. In these interviews we were able to put the things we had learned from research and studying in the beginning of the class to the test and figure out what was and was not going to work for us. This proved to be an extremely effective tool for us students, and we got very practical experience.
Constructing oral history is difficult but rewarding. Despite the challenges of learning both the history of the Vietnam War and how to do oral history our class has reached fruition. In the coming few days we will put everything we learned to work and perform interviews with Vietnam veterans. As a class we are all extremely excited and are ready for the task at hand. In these trying times with Covid-19 challenging the world around we hope that doing this interview over Zoom can help bring some light back into the world.
In times when communication is more widely available and faster than ever, listening has become an art form that requires slowing down and zoning in to block out all the noise. I thought I knew what it took to listen before walking into my HIS 240: Vietnam War Stories course at Wabash College. During the first few weeks of class as we learned about the importance and impetus for oral history and discussed the importance of body language I recalled the numerous times previous professors or theatre directors would clap their hands and say, “What did he just say?” It surprised me just how often, many students would have no idea how to answer that question. They were not listening. The same principle applies to oral history. It requires to be in tune and present for extended periods of time, a test of listening endurance. Over the course of the semester, discussing what it means to listen with five other guys, has taught me just how diverse people’s listening experiences are and with our listening exercises, I believe we all deepened our understanding of empathetic listening.
I remember growing up at the foot of my mother’s bed and listening to her and my sisters talk about their days at school, chiming in when they asked me a question, but never discussing my own day. In middle school and high school, I remember learning how to appear attentive and “actively listening” at school assemblies. As a senior theater major in college with years of experience in theater and film, I thought that empathetically listening to war veterans talk of their experiences would come naturally. After all, I reasoned, my experience with theater has given me more tools and knowledge for this course than any previous courses. However, listening to a stranger describe their experiences, without a filter, an agenda or a goal, requires a certain feeling that was absent in my past active listening experiences. It is intimate. As the veteran describes their time in boot camp, or how their father taught them to behave, how they met their wife, or even the simple way they recount what the weather was like when they landed in Iraq, the rest of the world simply disappears.
I did not realize just how quiet a conversation could actually be.
Part 2: Ian Little